30 March 2010

Short Takes I


Panhandlers have become more and more common on the streets and subways of New York, and even when we feel compassion for their plight, their spiels and tactics do become predictable and indistinguishable. But not always.

One afternoon, I was riding to an appointment on the Upper West Side on the IRT #2 Express. After the 34th Street stop, I was reading my paper when out of the corner of my eye I caught some activity. I looked up to see a thin black man leaping down the center aisle of the car. He was dressed in a long, black cape and was humming the theme song from the Batman TV show. I thought at first he was entertaining a child, but I looked around and there were no children in the car. Then I assumed the man was just one of the unfortunate mentally ill people who inhabit the city’s public places. He may have been, but he was certainly more than that.

Using one of the center poles, the man vaulted to a stop in front of the forward doors and announced, “I am Batman Blackman. I fight crime on your streets.” The train began to pull into the 42nd Street stop, and, as the doors opened, Batman Blackman announced, “I have to fight crime on 42nd Street, too,” and exited by the front doors, humming the Batman theme music.

Almost immediately, I heard him reentering by the center doors, explaining, “I guess I won’t be fighting crime here today.” It was then that I noticed his hair. He wore a modified “Don King,” but on either side the hair was styled into two “ears” like a frizzy version of Batman’s hood. The man swirled his cape, really just a length of thin, black cloth, and hummed the Batman theme again. Then he began his pitch for money. The delighted riders seemed more generous than usual; from the sound of coins being pulled from pockets and dropped into Batman’s container, he should have done pretty well on that IRT #2.


For two weeks one summer a number of years ago, I’d been on jury duty in the New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan. I was assigned to a lawsuit which involved a hospital, so, obviously, there were doctors called as witnesses. One such witness who testified on behalf of the hospital was asked in cross examination if he’d ever had contact with the attorneys representing the hospital while on its staff. The doctor, who’d been subpoenaed to appear, responded quite vehemently, “I hate lawyers. I have as little contact with them as possible. I’m a doctor, and I have a real problem with lawyers.”

While the attorneys, the judge, and the jury all burst out laughing at the witness’s earnestness, a large class of young law associates trouped into the courtroom. Our laughter increased, and the judge suggested that perhaps the court reporter ought to read back the previous statement for the benefit of the would-be lawyers. Naturally, we, the jury, agreed.

Unaccountably, however, the plaintiff’s attorney picked up his questioning at that juncture by asking, “You don’t like lawyers, is that true?” The witness didn’t need to be reminded he was under oath.


During the fall term about ten years ago, I’d been teaching writing at Felician College, a Catholic school in Lodi, New Jersey. I’m not Catholic myself, but I know that the Christmas season is particularly meaningful for Catholics, not least for the Felician Sisters, who run the College. Nonetheless, I was a little taken aback when I arrived on campus on the evening of 15 December to administer my final exam. After checking my own mail in the reception office as usual, I turned to leave. There, by the door, was a mailbox boldly labeled in large, Gothic type, “MESSIAH.”

I was somewhat disappointed to realize a moment later that the sisters weren’t really expecting Jesus to pick up his Christmas cards at Felician College. It was simply the campus mailbox designated for the College’s annual performance of Handel’s Messiah. What a let-down.


When I was a freshman at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, the school still maintained a tradition of wearing a tie to all university functions, including meals and classes. Even in the fraternity house dining rooms, we were expected to wear a tie. Though called a tradition, the practice was enforced by a student committee, and many professors wouldn’t allow informally dressed students to attend class. My German professor, for instance, was renowned for being very strict about the dress of his students, especially seniors taking their spring finals when some took liberties during their last days on campus in the warm Virginia weather. The late B. S. Stephenson, in fact, was known to have dismissed an entire senior seminar for being insufficiently formal for their exam. One class decided en masse to treat the professor to a parting gesture. When he opened the door to admit the students into the exam room, they filed in, each one dressed in a tuxedo and black tie. There’s no record of Dr. Stephenson’s reaction.


One day almost 20 years ago, I was taking my then-new dog out for his morning walk. The sidewalk in front of my building was busy with people on their way to work and students on their way to class at the Catholic high school at the western end of my block. There were also several other dogwalkers among the pedestrians around the entrance to the building and, as usual for his first-thing-in-the-morning walk, Thespis, my Jack Russell terrier mix, was anxious to get to his favorite tree plot for his first relief after spending the night at my bedside. Oblivious to everything else, he shot across the sidewalk, tangling his leash with another passing dog’s, tying up the foot traffic briefly as we owners, used to this kind of thing, apologetically do-si-do’d our way out of the tangle. One man, older, with a scraggly beard and shabbily dressed, was impatient.

“Come on,” he said irritatedly. “I don’t have all day.”

I recognized the man immediately. He spends his day sitting atop the stone wall at the entrance to the school. I see him there every day as I walk past the school with Thespis, or on my way to run errands or catch the subway on Sixth Avenue. It never occurred to me that he considered this his job--and that he commuted to his perch. He was in such a hurry that morning; do you suppose he punches in and out on a schedule? Is there a wall-sitters’ supervisor who checks to see if everyone’s in place on time and assures that no one leaves early?

(The school, by the way, has since put metal strips with points in double rows along the wall. Nobody sits there anymore.)


After I received my ROTC commission in the army, I was assigned to an officers’ basic course at Ft. Knox, Kentucky. Like most officers’ basic courses, this one included several mass meetings with representatives of the various offices and agencies of the army. One such meeting was with the officer responsible for junior officer assignments. All the student officers then at Ft. Knox, regardless of their training class, attended this meeting; there must have been several thousand novice officers, all in fatigue uniforms, sitting in a huge hall, facing a small stage from which the assignments officer was making his pitch.

The session lasted a couple of hours during which we received information regarding what sorts of assignments we could look forward to in the coming months and years, how we should let our preferences be known, how we could make package deals to guide our military careers in the directions we wished, what special training opportunities were available, and how much extra active-duty time we’d have to put in for making certain choices. It was all very important to a bunch of just-out-of-college shavetails, and we were all a little tense listening to such vital advice direct from the flagpole.

Finally it was all over, and we began to gather our field jackets and fatigue caps to return to our quarters. Of course, we were mumbling among ourselves, comparing wish lists and career plans. Then, over this hubbub, a voice asked, “Has anyone seen my hat?”

Immediately, a lone response came--as if it were the most reasonable question: “What color was it?”

The tension snapped, and a sea of olive drab burst into laughter.


The Signature Theatre's Trip to Bountiful, which I saw on a Friday night some five years ago, was quite excellent all around, and Lois Smith's performance in the lead role was superb. After the show, I made a pit stop in the men's room. When I came out, a line had formed and about three people from the door, I spotted Edward Albee. Now, that alone is a New York theater moment--like the time I saw Colleen Dewhurst sitting in the upstairs lobby of the Uris Theatre during intermission of some show. But there's more.

As I was walking past the line, I heard the guy in front of Albee, whom I didn't recognize at all, saying to him, "Some day I hope to do Virginia Woolf justice." Well, my initial instinct was to make a comment like "I kinda thought somebody already had" as I passed by, but I decided to keep my mouth shut. So I did.

I have no idea who the guy talking to Albee was. Was he a director or a play reader or what? No idea. (It's more fun to imagine . . . .) He looked youngish--say mid-30s or so--and I wasn't even sure that Albee knew him. I don't know if Albee's like Woody Allen and doesn't like to be approached in public, but he looked a little uncomfortable. Since I was just passing by on my way out, I may have caught only a momentary reaction and be misinterpreting the whole scene. Albee didn't say anything, in any case.


Actually, that wasn't the only New York theater moment I had that evening. As I was walking Thespis before I left for midtown, a large gaggle of young people passed me on my block. They looked like they were in high school, but I'm betting it's college. Anyway, just as they were going past, one guy in the middle of the bunch asked out loud, "What do you know about Ionesco?" A little guy in front--he really did look like he wasn't out of high school yet--turned around and announced, "Ionesco? I love Ionesco!" At which point, he walked backwards right into a woman trying to make her way down the sidewalk. If it had been Beckett, they'd have fallen into a heap on the pavement. But they didn't. Just a brief pinball effect.


On the Wednesday before last Thanksgiving, my mother left Bethesda, Maryland, by bus at 11:10 a.m. to join me and our family in New Jersey for the Holiday. She was scheduled to arrive in New York City at 3 p.m. I went to the station at 2 to get our train tickets for the next day, anticipating a line--but there wasn't one at the ticket counter. So I figured I had an hour to kill before Mom’s bus arrived, and I walked around, did some non-holiday shopping at a drugstore in the terminal, and then decided to go meet the bus at the drop-off site near 8th Avenue, west of Penn Station.

Now, we’d planned to meet at the cab stand halfway between 7th and 8th Avenue on 31st Street. First of all, it's got a covered walkway in case it was raining (which it turned out it was) and, second, it's a convenient and easily recognizable spot to look for one another. But I was early enough that I figured I'd save Mom the walk and the push through the throngs that were jamming the western end of 31st Street, waiting to board outbound busses. The bus company had moved the drop-off site to 31st and 8th (by the big post office) instead of 31st and 7th (the pick-up site) for some reason, and it looked like cabs were stopping a lot along 8th, so I figured I'd meet Mom at the bus and we'd catch a cab right there instead of having to drag her suitcase through the mob along the 31st Street sidewalk west of the cab stand.

Well, a bus arrived at just before 3, but it wasn't the 11:10 from Bethesda; that was still 45 minutes out the dispatcher told me, so I decided I'd better stick around our designated meeting spot, and I went back to the cab stand. It got later and later, and at about 5 or so, I walked over to 7th Avenue where the busses were loading and asked a staffer there what the story was. He said the drop-off was still at 8th Avenue and that the 11:10 was "in the tunnel." (I assumed he meant the Lincoln, not the Baltimore Harbor!) I went back to the cab stand, where I could sort of keep an eye on both locations, but at 6, I walked back over to 8th Avenue. There was no one there from the bus company, but another man was waiting for his mother to come in on the same bus as my mom. He was in contact with his wife back at home, and she was in contact with the bus company, so I waited until he heard from her, and she reported that bus office had no info (which I would have guessed anyway). We decided to walk back over to 7th, where there were company staff, and see what we could learn there. It was now 6:30, 3½ hours after the bus was scheduled to arrive (and 4½ hours after I'd arrived at the station!). The dispatcher at the pick-up site reported that the 11:10 had arrived and unloaded and that everyone had gone off. They had moved the drop-off site back to 7th Avenue so the bus never went over to 8th! Well, we both decided to make one last check of 8th Avenue in case our mothers had gone there to look for us--I made a swing by the cab stand, since my mom never expected me to meet her at the 8th Avenue spot. Mom wasn't there, of course, so I went to 8th Avenue to check with the other man (I never got his name, unfortunately). No one was there, either, of course. The man lent me his cellphone—neither my mother nor I owned one--and I called home, but I got a busy signal. I figured Mother must be there making a call. I few minutes later--as we were hoofing back to 7th Avenue, I called again but got my own answering machine. The other guy lived in Queens, so he was pretty sure his mother wouldn't go on ahead, but I figured my mom would do that either when she didn't find me at the cab stand, or after she looked around a bit and concluded that I hadn't waited for her. So I hightailed it back to the apartment, hoping to find Mom there waiting.

I got home, but Mom wasn't there. Instead, I found a message on the answering machine--the call that was coming in when I tried to call home earlier, causing the busy signal. She said she figured I'd be home or on my way and she'd catch a cab to the apartment. (She had gone into Penn Station when she didn't see me at the cab stand. It must have been when I went to 8th Avenue to make that earlier check, when I met the other mother-meeter.) A few minutes after I found her phone message, she arrived at my apartment. (Thank God, I suppose, that that's all that happened!)

We now each have cell phones (neither of us having felt the need for one until then).

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